Ruby Swinney’s poetic oil paintings embrace the sublime

Cape Town based fine artist Ruby Swinney works primary with oil paint on tracing paper to create dreamlike landscapes. There is a strong sense of the ephemeral in her work. The young artist explains her paintings as an exploration of a “deep loss of faith in what it means to be human, living in a vanishing natural world that is growing darker and unfamiliar”. Her use of a monochrome palette further expresses this concept, effectively casting each scene in a haze of nostalgia that longs for a time that could have been. What is special and striking about Ruby’s work is her sensitive and emotional style; each delicate brush stroke seems to depict her romantic reflections and impressions rather than real objects.

Here we interview the talented young painter about her burgeoning art career, which has kicked off to a very promising start. Her Michaelis School of Fine Arts graduate exhibition was bought in its entirety by the Zeitz Museum for Contemporary Art Africa (MOCAA) and she has recently shown at the FNB JoburgArtFair as a part of Whatiftheworld Gallery’s stable. 

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Tell us about the way you’ve been navigating the local art world since you graduated last year… 

Like most graduates I had no idea what to do so I took a studio in Longmarket Street and carried on making work as if I hadn’t left Michaelis. I approached some galleries in the area, and started working with SMITH Studio, who put me on the group show Arcadia in May. I also participated in a small group show with some friends from Michaelis at Mullers Gallery. I was then invited by SMAC Gallery to participate in the group show Nothing Personal in Stellenbosch. I recently became part of Whatiftheworld Gallery’s stable, showing with them for the first time at the FNB JoburgArtFair.

Do you feel you were adequately prepared to become a full-time practicing artist? What’s the one thing you wish you learnt while still studying? 

At Michaelis I tended to work alone as much as possible and not rely on my lecturers’ feedback, which I think helped when I left, because it was as if I had just moved studios. I wasn’t prepared for the politics of the art world. I really knew nothing about working with galleries or selling my work. I have realised you have to separate the work you do in studio from the pressures of the business, but I really was thrown in the deep end.

One thing I wish I had learnt while studying was casting sculptures – making silicon moulds and learning the techniques of mould making and casting, as well as welding. Unfortunately, the way the courses are structured at Michaelis means you have to choose your medium early on. I would have preferred a more multi-disciplinary approach.

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You certainly ended your degree on a high note, with your entire collection being bought by the Zeitz MOCAA. How did this come about? 

During the preview of my grad show I received a call from a classmate telling me that she had good and bad news for me, saying a museum was interested in buying my work, but they wanted to buy the whole collection as it stood. I was at first concerned as we were told at Michaelis that it wasn’t good to sell all your work to one collector so early in your career. I found out the museum was the Zeitz MOCAA (who naively, I knew nothing about) so I made a phone call to a good friend and established artist, who told me that it was a fantastic opportunity and would be an incredible thing for my career. And she was right.

When you’re making art, do you guide your medium or does it guide you?

I think it’s a bit of both. I enjoy the unexpectedness of oil paint. There is an uncontrollable, surprising quality to paint, which I find interesting when juxtaposed with areas of controlled painting. I think in my latest paintings I do more of the “guiding”, but it’s an ongoing relationship. 

There’s a poetic quality to your paintings. Do words play a role in your creative process? 

I’m interested in the Romantic movement, so my work is inspired by writers like the Bronté sisters, Mary Shelley, Jane Austen and the poet John Keats, as well as Ted Hughes and Sylvia Plath, Kazuo Ishiguro, Ian McEwan, Julian Barnes and Kate Atkinson. I also find Rudolf Steiner’s Anthroposophical ideas on the etheric realm and the human soul interesting. I am also influenced by ideas and archetypes of Ancient Greek mythology.

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Can you talk to us about the intent behind your technique and colour choices? 

I am attracted to monochromatic palettes, possibly because of my interest in early black and white film and photography. I am also interested in the evocative nature of colour, and I feel the use of one colour intensifies the mood of my paintings. My technique developed from a love of monotype printing. However I found that the vivacity of the oil was lost when printing on paper, so I tried to duplicate the effect by painting directly onto trace. 

What themes are you interested in exploring through your work? How have these shifted in direction over the years? 

I have always been drawn to themes of memory, loss and death, and the connection between romantic love and the sublime. These have all fed into the current direction that my work is taking.

I think I have certain responses to the present technological revolution that echo the Romantics earlier responses to industrialisation. They reacted by embracing ideas of the sublime in the natural and spiritual or mythical world. Kazuo Ishiguro’s dystopian novel Never Let Me Go has informed many of the concepts around my work. It was the deep poignant longing of the characters for something unattainable that was very moving to me. In my work I’m trying to evoke this painful longing and uncertainty of what it is to be human, as we fearfully peer out at a shifting world that is becoming dark and unfamiliar. 

Do you think there are barriers to entry for young artists in South Africa? 

I think it can be difficult to get into the right spaces to show your work, where you will be taken seriously. But I guess it also depends if you want to be a part of the global art market. Many young artists don’t necessarily want that. There are many different ways to be an artist now. Galleries are not the only way. I do think it is more difficult perhaps without going through an institution like an art school or a university, which is an issue on many levels, and I hope that this will start changing.

What’s really exciting or encouraging about the local art scene right now? 

There are some brilliant young artists working in South Africa at the moment, and a new appreciation of art generally—a realisation that art is something alive that can question and inform and enlighten the way we see the world. I think there is a lot of interest and excitement around South African and African contemporary art right now. Having an African contemporary art museum opening here in Cape Town also means there are opportunities to showcase local art to the world.

What do you have planned for the next few months? Are you busy with a new body of work?

I am busy on four large commission pieces for the Zeitz MOCAA for the end of the year, and then I will be focusing on the Cape Town Art Fair in February 2017 where I’ll have a solo booth with Whatiftheworld Gallery and my first solo show also with Whatiftheworld in May 2017.

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